The Walking Dead Season 3 - A New Frontier: Episodes 1 & 2 - The Ties That Bind
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A New Frontier states its intention clearly from the off. This is a totally different story, with an almost completely different cast. For players expecting a continuation from The Walking Dead Season Two finale, prepare for disappointment. Telltale has compacted the outcomes into a couple of throwaway segments which - whilst no less impactful - essentially consign your decisions to the rubbish tip, like so many of their other franchises.
It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in this case. A stall needed to be set up to showcase a world away from Wellington, and given the amount of time that has passed, a third season accompanying Clem’s ragtag bunch of friends may have proven a little too pedestrian. For the first double episode, Ties That Bind, Javier and his family take their place as they are introduced at the start of the outbreak in a wonderful pre-title sequence. As Javier’s father dies and then undies causing panic and horror, we get a glimpse of a suitably dysfunctional family ravaged by tragedy. Flash forward to the present day, and Javi is our new protagonist accompanied by those that decided to remain with him. Keeping one step ahead of the herds of walkers, they’re living on a day-to-day basis until they hit a cache of food and potential shelter. The problem is, it all belongs to someone else…
The tropes are familiar for the universe, but the presentation and story are all top notch. You’re brought up to speed quickly thanks to strong writing and a sympathetic cast of voice actors, and the exposition is hidden well amongst the usual bickering that goes on in most households. It’s a natural introduction to a likeable crew. And then, as you will no doubt have been aware from the promotional build up to this series, Clementine makes an entry. It’s been a few years, and she is now a shotgun-wielding badass who has been established as a regular around the parts of the region that Javi finds himself in. The transition works not only because of your prior knowledge of her backstory, but because of the world itself. You simply cannot survive if you’re weak; the flip side of that is the sacrifice of part of your humanity, and this plays out in Clem’s story too. She is ever so slightly unhinged, which makes the fact that you’re viewing her from the eyes of a third party all the more effective.
The gameplay itself is basically unchanged. You’ll wander around an area, looking at things until something you stumble upon triggers a quick time event. You’ll be tasked with finding gas or prying open locks, but none of these things will be a challenge as all of the equipment you need will be to hand. However, you may miss things depending on the order in which you examine the items in an area. On our first playthrough we totally overlooked a couple of batteries that would have made one of the kids very happy. It’s a shame that the structure is such that items like this can be missed, as whilst they make nice additions to the narrative, they aren’t themselves compelling enough to replay the story. That burden lies with the decisions you make - in conversation, in passing, under pressure. If you’ve played a Telltale game before, you’ll know that there are actually very few choices you make that have any significant impact on the plot. The writers are funnelling you to a specific endgame, and any major deviations simply cannot be catered for within a two hour story - at least not within the development cycle that Telltale operate.
It’s therefore a blessing and a curse that whether you decide to join up with Eleanor (a friendly, flirty doctor) to locate some missing family members, or side with Tripp (a gruff man-bear with a heart of gold) to do the same thing, the ultimate outcome doesn’t change. The usual series of decisions are accompanied by the usual bunch of antagonists and the usual shocking cliffhanger. If you know what to expect and you’re happy with that, then Ties That Bind will not disappoint. If you were expecting something a little more developed than Telltale’s usual schtick, then the opposite is true.
You are able to play as Clem in the flashback sequences, which we suspect will permeate throughout this season and fill in the details about what she’s been up to. A reveal in the second episode certainly surprises, and it’s a neat way of demonstrating how the narrative from then can influence your choices in the present, even if Javier himself isn’t aware of it. It allows you a little more leeway in terms of role-playing him based on your own knowledge, rather than his. However, as a leading man he’s certainly no Lee - at least, not yet. The relationship with Clem feels very much like the reversal of Joel and Ellie’s roles in The Last of Us: a stronger girl leading a weaker man.
If you haven't played the previous two seasons, fear not. You can build your own backstory for Clem through a series of choices in the introduction, a clunky but effective way of getting her character up to speed. Similarly, if you played the previous two series on a different format, it's just a case of uploading your saved game to Telltale's cloud from that device, and then importing it into your shiny new system ready for season three. It worked seamlessly for us and unlike many Telltale games we have recently covered, we experienced no lag, stuttering or other graphical or audio issues on PC throughout the entirety of the game.
Whilst marketed as a two-parter, we’re not entirely sure that this does anything to separate Ties That Bind from any of the other seasons of The Walking Dead. The five chapters in each of those seasons led on consecutively as well, the only difference is that players will get four hours of story to play with before Christmas rather than two. Granted, the closing moments of part two certainly provide a callback to the first episode that may have had less of an impact with a two or three month gap, but that in itself doesn’t really justify their bundling together. Conversely, it serves only to highlight how much of a comedown the second episode is after the sparkling opener. Navigating your way through conversations with a new group of people quickly descends into rote mundanity, mainly because none of them have anything interesting to say. Whilst Tripp is a reliably stalwart character, it doesn’t help that many of the cast are unlikeable - particularly Gabe, a stroppy teenager. However, in the later stages, a welcome face from the books and TV show makes an appearance, leaving us wondering about their role in the rest of the story. The timeline has always been a little vague with The Walking Dead, so at this stage it's unclear whether we're in a parallel world or a tie-in.
At this stage, it appears that Telltale don’t plan to do anything too different with the gameplay elements. Despite altering some quick time events to be button mashers, or ever-so-slightly changing the aim-and-fire trigger sequences we’ve seen dozens of times before, or putting the prompt in different places to make it feel new...it’s ultimately shuffling the same pieces around. Where The Walking Dead succeeds, mostly, compared to other series like Batman is in the storytelling. Even though there is a lull in part two, there is a potentially exciting new plotline we haven’t come across before which made us keen to find out more. “Potential” is a word we’ve used a lot with Telltale’s games recently and, as always, it should come with a disclaimer given how disappointing they’ve turned out. But whilst A New Frontier doesn’t do anything differently with the gameplay, the story has always been The Walking Dead’s strength and, in this area at least, season three may provide the reversal of fortune that Telltale need.